Cash Back vs. Miles: Choosing the Right Rewards Strategy For You

Here’s how to choose the best credit card strategy and maximize your rewards.
Last updated Jun 3, 2021 | By Lindsay Frankel
Woman research cash back vs. miles credit cards

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Using a credit card wisely gives you the opportunity to rack up some serious rewards that translate to free money and other perks. And because there are a number of credit cards to choose from — many with flexible rewards programs — you’re in control of how you get rewarded for your everyday purchases.

Want a free trip to Hawaii? You might be able to accomplish that with a travel card’s sign-up bonus. Want free dough to spend on groceries? Great idea⁠ — a cashback credit card could get you more than you could possibly eat.

When looking purely at the value of rewards per dollar spent, travel rewards cards often provide more generous sign-up bonuses and a greater return on your everyday spending — but that doesn’t mean travel rewards credit cards are an inherently better choice. Cashback credit cards offer greater simplicity in redemption, and if you’d rather save money than travel for free, a cashback credit card could be a better choice for you.

Why people like cashback credit cards

With a cashback credit card, you’ll typically get anywhere from $0.01 to $0.05 back for each dollar you spend. Plus, you’ll often have choices for how you receive your money. For example, you could choose a statement credit, pick out a gift card, or receive a check in the mail.

Cashback cards usually have low thresholds for redemption, and your rewards are often very liquid, which means you can access cash when you need it.

One example of a card that has both flexible and accessible rewards is the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card. There’s no minimum threshold for redemption, your rewards never expire as long as your account is open, and you can choose to get cash, apply your rewards towards a recent purchase, or buy gift cards to your favorite stores.

Typical sign-up bonuses on cashback cards range from $100 to $200. For example, the Bank of America Cash Rewards Credit Card has a $200 sign-up bonus, plus you’ll get 3% cash back on the category of your choice; 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (on the first $2,500 spent each quarter in the 2% and 3% categories combined); and 1% cash back on all other purchases.

Many cashback credit cards don’t have annual fees, but one exception is the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. It has a $95 (waived first year) (See rates and fees) annual fee, but you’ll get 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (for first $6,000 per year, after that 1X) and on U.S. streaming services, 3% at U.S. gas stations and on eligible transit, and 1% on other purchases. 

The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express has a $0 (See rates and fees) annual fee and offers 20% cash back at Amazon.com during the first six months (up to $150), 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000 a year, 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, and 1% cash back on other purchases. The Blue Cash Preferred card could be the better deal for families who spend enough each year to earn enough to offset the cost of its annual fee.

Cashback rewards credit cards are a good idea for those who want to quickly access extra cash to reduce overall spending. They work well for shoppers who don’t travel often and want the flexibility to use their rewards for other things.

If trying to maximize your miles sounds like too much effort and you’re looking for a straightforward way to redeem your rewards, you’ll probably be better off with a cashback card than a travel rewards card.

On the other hand, if you travel frequently and want to get more value in rewards per dollar spent, consider a travel rewards credit card.

The benefits of travel rewards cards

With most travel rewards cards, you’ll get at least one point (or mile) for every dollar you spend using your card. Most airline-branded credit cards only let you redeem points within that airline’s frequent flyer program. But these cards may also offer perks such as priority boarding or free bags, so if you’re loyal to a certain airline, looking into its branded rewards card is definitely a good idea.

Other travel cards have highly flexible rewards that you can redeem for cash back, use for purchases through the issuer’s travel portal, or even transfer to airline loyalty programs.

With a premium card, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, your points go even further when you use them for travel purchases; the Sapphire Reserve’s points are worth 50% more through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal than if you were to just get cash back. 

And like many other travel rewards cards, the Chase Sapphire Reserve also offers a tremendous sign-up bonus, with the chance to earn 60,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. However, all this value comes with an annual fee of $550.

But even travel rewards cards without annual fees typically may have more impressive sign-up bonuses than cashback cards. Take, for example, the Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card: You can earn 20,000 points when you spend $1,000 within the first 3 months. That’s equal to hundreds of dollars in cash and can also be used toward travel.

Annual fees on travel rewards cards range from $0 to more than $500. Generally speaking, you can earn better rewards and access more perks with more expensive cards.

It may sound like a no-brainer, but the best rewards credit cards for travel are most appropriate for people who want to travel frequently. Premium cards in particular are good for people who spend a lot on travel each year and can use added perks, such as access to airport lounges or credits toward TSA PreCheck fees.

And since rewards redemptions take a little more research to get the best value, travel rewards cards are good for people who don’t mind putting some effort into getting the most bang for their buck.

Cash back vs. miles: How to choose

When deciding between a cashback credit card and a travel rewards card, it’s important to think carefully about how you’ll use your card and how you prefer to redeem your points. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How often will I travel? If you travel a few times a year or more, consider a travel rewards credit card.
  • Where will I travel? Points can stretch further on more expensive flights, so a travel rewards card is a particularly good choice for someone traveling internationally. Plus, many travel cards offer no foreign transaction fees, which can save you even more if you travel abroad frequently.
  • Am I loyal to one airline? Deciding whether you’ll stick with one airline or shop around for each flight will help you narrow down your card options.
  • Do I want to get more value or save more money? If you’re looking at your rewards as a money-saving strategy, consider a cashback card. If you’d like to get complimentary perks and discounted or free trips, go with a travel rewards card.
  • How much time do I want to spend monitoring and redeeming points? If you’re looking for simple and straightforward redemption options, a cashback card might be best. If you’re willing to put in the effort to maximize the value of your points, consider a travel rewards card.

If you’re new to credit card rewards, you’re in for a treat no matter which type of card you choose. Just remember to do your research and consider your needs when choosing the right credit card for you.

New, Higher Sign Up Bonus - Worth $1250 Toward Travel

Intro Offer

100,000 points

Annual Fee

$95

Rewards Rate

up to 5X points

Benefits and Drawbacks

Benefits

  • Best offer ever! 100,000 point sign-up bonus
  • 5X points on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • 25% more value when redeeming rewards for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • 10% anniversary point bonus each year
  • $50 annual credit on hotel stays booked through Ultimate Rewards
  • Premium travel protection benefits

Drawbacks

  • Has annual fee
  • Typically need to spend thousands to reap rewards
Card Details
  • Earn 100,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months
  • 5X points on Lyft rides (through March 2022) and travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards; 3X points on eligible dining, select streaming services, and online grocery purchases; 2X points on travel; and 1X points per $1 on all other eligible purchases

Author Details

Lindsay Frankel Lindsay Frankel is a Denver-based freelance writer who specializes in credit cards, travel, budgeting/saving, and shopping. She has been featured in several finance publications, including LendingTree. When she's not writing, you can find her enjoying the great outdoors, playing music, or cuddling with her rescue pup.